At the onset of my early twenties, I found myself dwelling in a very confusing place.
I’d been living in a broken-down, unregistered car for many months at this point—and due to several other unfortunate circumstances, I’d also recently lost my job, band, girlfriend, and even two of my best friends. (They moved, they didn’t die.)
I was broke, broken, and outright befuddled. All of my comforts and reliable distractions had been suddenly stripped away, and I found myself looking at my life through the lens of a victim.
As soon as I realized this, I knew that something needed to change. I didn’t want the rest of my life to be characterized by the sob stories that I kept repeating to myself. I needed a reset. I needed resurrection.
From the place that I was sitting, I could only see two legitimate courses of action. I could either mope about my predicament and just trudge along in the same fashion, or I could take these radical shifts as a sign of release and choose a new path. I chose the latter.
The choice I made is an entire story in itself (actually an entire book, one that I am currently writing!), but the basic gist is that I decided to pack a bag and start hitchhiking around the country in search of something different. Along the way I had countless new experiences and learned endless life lessons, but the one lesson I want to share now came while sleeping on the sidewalk in San Francisco.
As you might expect, the lifestyle I was living was rather raw and gritty, and it often stranded me in places that didn’t provide many options. In this particular situation, I’d been dropped off in the middle of the city in the dead of the night with no money, no contacts, and absolutely nowhere to pitch a tent. My usual course of action when it came to sleeping was to find a patch of woods on the side of the highway and set up camp where no one would see me. However, that was not an option this time, so I was forced to improvise.
I was dreadfully tired after a full day of travel—and even though I considered just staying awake until the sun came up, my body simply wouldn’t allow it. I was starting to feel delirious and knew I had to get some rest.
An opportunity presented itself when I came upon a cluster of homeless people snuggled up in a little alcove right along the sidewalk. Even though I had been living on the road for a few months at this point and had grown accustomed to existing on the fringe of society, sleeping on the sidewalk in full view of the pedestrians was a little unnerving. My first thought was: “This is not an option for me.”
I knew there was a kind of bond that exists among those who live on the streets, but I hadn’t yet found my way into that brotherhood. I still considered myself a traveler—someone who chose to live on the road and sacrifice their comfort. I assumed that these people were a much more committed sort and wouldn’t take kindly to a bright-eyed tourist.
Right when I was about to pass by and look for a different option, a face emerged from the mass of blankets and waved me over. “Hey brother, we can make some room if you need a place to sleep,” he said. There was no hesitation or disdain in his voice at all. He simply saw my pack, noted the late hour, and invited me into their space. There was no vetting process or scrutiny about who I was or why I was living in such a way. There was just the acknowledgment of someone in need and an offering of what was available.
The beauty of this offer should not be overlooked. It’s not just the fact that I looked the part and so was trusted to join them. At the heart of that offer, there was no him and no me whatsoever. There was only giving and receiving. He didn’t own that space, so he had no reason to feel righteous in his offer. He was just as down and out as I was—probably more so. He simply recognized my predicament, understood the value of rest, and was directed—consciously or unconsciously—by the force of compassion.
This seemingly simple act is so blatantly removed from modern society, that when I encountered it so freely, I was totally overwhelmed with gratitude. I felt so lucky to have been given that space to roll out my sleeping bag that it might as well have been a king-size bed in a luxury hotel. I couldn’t believe how simply and unconditionally that offer was extended. My entire perception of what it means to give and to receive was totally shifted by that one simple act.
I learned a lesson that night which has stuck with me to this very day. “Compassion transcends limitations.” It has the ability to empower the powerless and give meaning to the mundane. It has the ability to uproot fixed notions and destabilize beliefs. It has the ability to transmute our suffering and use its new, pearl-like form to relieve the suffering of others. The power to help is always within us, even if we ourselves are also in need.
Author: David Matters
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Kenni Linden